This is the second in a four part series of posts written in response to Geert Wilders’ visit to Australia in early 2013.
In a previous post I contrasted Geert Wilders’ view that ‘Islam is the problem’ with the claims of many Muslims who preach with equal conviction that ‘Islam is the solution’, and examined evidence of the negative characteristics associated with belief in Islam, including disadvantaged human development outcomes.
These days many leaders in the West find it convenient to sweep the ‘problem’ of Islam under the carpet. Long gone are the days of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilders’ hero, who declared in Fear God and take your own part that values such as freedom and equality only existed in Europe because it had the military capacity to ‘beat back the Moslem invader’.
However, given the negative outcomes associated with Islam, one of which is Geert Wilders’ need for constant armed guards (some others were enumerated in the previous post), the question whether Islam is the problem or the solution is not something to be just swept under the carpet.
In the fourth and final post of this series we will consider Wilders’ policies for managing ‘the problem’. The third post, the next after this, will review an on-going dispute between critics of Islam as to whether there can be a moderate, tolerable form of Islam. On one side stand those, like Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Robert Spencer, who consider Islam to be essentially irredeemable. On the other side stand those, like Daniel Pipes and Barry Rubin, who argue that there are different Islams and the ‘solution’ to radical Islam is moderate Islam.
Of course there are many opinions about Islam. In this, the second post in this series, we consider two widely-held secular – and positive – perspectives on Islam which have been influential in shaping the response of secular-minded westerners to Islam. These are universalism and relativism.
Relativism holds that no one religion is true, but as different as they are, all religions are equally valid in their own way, and the differences deserve respect.
Universalism — in the sense used here — holds that the core of religions consists of a set of positive ethical values shared by all people and all faiths.
For many western secular people, universalism and relativism are so deeply embedded in their world view that they have no choice but to process Islam through the grid of these belief systems. This means they pre-judge Islam by limiting their understanding only to what their frame permits them to see. What they observe is not Islam as it really is, but as it appears through the window frame of their own beliefs. They see Islam as their world view tells them it must be.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote
“One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.” (Philosophical Investigations.)
Before examining these two perspectives, we can observe that some secular people believe the core of all religions consists of negative values. This is negative religious universalism.
Bertrand Russell was a famous exponent of negative religious universalism. He said, “I regard [religion] as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.” (Has Religion Made Useful Contribution to Civilization?) and “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.” (Why I am not a Christian.)
People who are invested in this view may reject the claim that ‘Islam is the problem,’ because for them ‘religion’ itself, conceived of as a unitary category, is the whole problem. They refuse to make any concessions to differences between religions, and will not concede that any one religion might be worse – or better – than another.
Others, like Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling God Delusion, believe all religions are harmful, but they are willing to concede Islam is worse than others. Dawkin’s judgement is, ‘I regard Islam as one of the great evils of the world.’
Negative universalism may be widely held among atheists, but the perspective I will focus on here is positive universalism, which is politically more influential in the west today. Although there are many who agree with Betrand Russell, outside of communist states negative universalism does not normally exercise a dominant influence on public policy.
The comfort of universalism and relativism
For many, relativism and universalism are not coherently worked-through conclusions which are arrived at after examining all the relevant evidence and comparing actual religious beliefs and practices. They are more like ideological blind spots adhered to because of the side benefits they bring. Above all, these blind spots serve to maintain world view inertia in the face of a confusing and challenging contrary evidence.
In some respects relativism and universalism can be easy and even comforting beliefs to hold because they eliminate the necessity to make up one’s mind by following or rejecting any religion, since all religions are either the same or equally valid. A universalist or a relativist can afford to think benignly of all religions and maintain an optimistic attitude about the role of religion in the world, while refraining from observing any of them.
The whole world looks rosy when you are wearing pink lenses, set in heart-shaped frames. In reality however, the two belief systems of relativism and universalism are dysfunctional because they are not reality-based: the world’s religions do not promote the same values; their values are often contradictory; many religious values are far from good by any reasonable standard; and religious teachings are not all intrinsically valid, indeed many can reasonably be judged to be true or false.
An instance of relativism shaping public policy was a speech on religious freedom given in 2012 by Hilary’s Clinton to the Carnegie Endowment for International peace. In it Clinton asserted that people who believe they possess ultimate truth constitute the most fundamental threat to religious liberty:
“The first [argument used to block religious freedom] is that only some people should be allowed to practice their faith – those who belong to the right faith. They define religion in such a way that if you do not believe what they want you to believe, then what you are doing is not practicing religion, because there is only one definition of religion. They, and only they and the religious leaders with whom they work, are in possession of the ultimate truth.”
Clinton also sees a link between believing you have the truth and hating others:
“People can believe that they and only those like them possess the one and only truth. That’s their right. Though they do not have the right to harm those they think harbor incorrect views. But their societies pay a cost when they choose to look at others with hate or disgust.”
For Clinton, relativism is the sine qua non of religious tolerance, and tolerance the sine qua non of religious freedom. In essence she asserts that all ‘legitimate religious differences’ are valid, and should be ‘tolerated, respected and protected’. You can believe what you like, and your beliefs should be respected, but if you think you have the truth, you are an extremist, and your ‘religious differences’ are not ‘legitimate’.
Thus, when answering a question about counter-terrorism measures, Clinton stated that one should distinguish ‘legitimate’ religion from ‘extremism’:
“So I think that we need to be very thoughtful in separating out the problems posed by extremism – no matter where they’re coming from – and terrorism, from legitimate religious differences that should be tolerated, respected, and protected.”
When Clinton uses the phrase ‘no matter where they’re coming from’ she is saying that extremism is common to all religions. Religious extremism is not to be linked to any one religion, because people of all faiths or in ‘nearly every society’ may think they possess a hotline to God:
“Now, there will always be people in nearly every society who are going to believe that God is talking right to them and saying, what you really need to do is overthrow the government. What you really need to do is to kill the unbelievers. …
… it’s not just religions against one another, it’s even within religions – within Christianity, within Judaism, within Islam, within Hinduism – there are people who believe their version of that religion is the only right way to believe.
…We watched for many years the conflict in Northern Ireland against Catholics on the one side, Protestants on the other.”
(Of course Clinton’s invocation of Northern Ireland as a comparison to Muslim sectarian violence is entirely misplaced. The Northern Irish Catholic-Protestant divide notwithstanding, the combatants in that conflict were not fighting out of any conviction that ‘God was talking right to them’. IRA ideology was shaped by Marxism, not Christian theology, and the core issue for the separatists was freedom from the oppression of British rule, not upholding true religion against disbelievers.)
Clinton’s answer to the evils of extremists — defined as those who believe in religious truth — is respect. If we extend respect to the beliefs of others, treating them as worthy and valid and allowing their beliefs and practices breathing space, she believes these others are more likely to act moderately, and not adopt extremist positions:
“I think the more respect there is for the freedom of religion, the more people will find useful ways to participate in their societies. If they feel suppressed, if there is not that safety valve that they can exercise their own religion, they then oftentimes feel such anger, despair that they turn to violence. They become extremists.”
For Clinton extremism is a vicious circle. The extremist A disrespects the beliefs of B, with the result that B feels such ‘anger’ and ‘despair’ that they become extremists in their turn, disrespecting the beliefs of others. This vicious circle can be broken and turned into a virtuous circle if A chooses to respect B’s beliefs. This respect will help B feel good about themselves, with the result that they become happy and self-confident, renounce extremist ways, and extend respect to others in their turn.
One problem with Clinton’s approach is that it is underpinned by a naive view of human nature. Some oppressive religious ideologies command respect, but are allergic to reciprocating it. If you offer one hand to a hungry lion, there is no guarantee he won’t like the taste of it and devour your other hand as well.
A deeper issue is that ideas do matter. Truth is not only the prerogative of science. Good ideas deserve vigorous support, including theological ideas. Conversely, bad ideas equally deserve to be rejected and refuted. False ideas should be opposed. Some religious beliefs do not deserve respect and it is reasonable to judge some religious beliefs to be true or false. For example, it is not ‘extremism’ to reject or even condemn the religious belief that Usama Bin Ladin is in paradise enjoying his virgins. It is not ‘extremism’ to be certain that the Koran is not the word of God.
Clinton is fundamentally in error when she implies that it is not what people believe, but certainty of belief which is the great danger to religious freedom. A convinced Quaker Christian does not present the same threat to religious freedom in the world today as a convinced Salafist Muslim. They may both be equally convinced they possess the truth, but the point is not the intensity of their convictions, but what they take the truth to be.
By Clinton’s definition, Abraham Lincoln was a religious extremist and thus a threat to religious freedom in the world. The American Civil War was fought over a claim to about religious truth, namely that all people are born equal so none should be enslaved. Lincoln believed he had God’s truth on the issue of slavery, and was willing to spend the lives of hundreds of thousands to impose this truth on the South. As the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic put it, “His [i.e. God’s] truth is marching on”.
In the South there were those who believed that God’s truth supported slavery. Clinton’s solution — according to her speech — would have been for each side to extend respect to the other, in the conviction that this display of tolerance would discourage everyone from becoming ‘extreme’ in their beliefs, and inspire everyone to get on well together. Bad luck for the slaves!
The essential problem and inevitable failure of Clinton’s belief system is that some religious beliefs – for example the belief that all people are created equal – are good and produce positive results. Other beliefs – such as a dogma that one class of persons is inherently inferior to another, whether women to men, or infidels to believers — do not deserve respect or tolerance.
Furthermore, there is even something threatening about Clinton’s use of the word ‘extremism’ to denigrate people who actually believe in the truth of their faith, together with her implication that these people’s beliefs are not ‘legitimate’. Clinton’s rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of the language of tyrants, who when they persecute religious people often denigrate them as ‘extremists’. For example the Soviet Union portrayed the Salvation Army as ‘extremist’ and a ‘cult’ which engaged in mind control, a claim which was then used to justify its persecution.
The elephant in the room of Clinton’s speech is Islam, because the most significant sources of religious persecution in the world today are Islamic dogmas. (See Crucifed Again, Raymond Ibrahim’s investigation of the theological roots of Islamic persecution.)
Although she steadfastly avoids naming Islam as a problem, Clinton was targeting her rhetoric at Islamic governments. Thus she praises the interim administration in Libya for advancing religious freedom and the Egyptian President Morsi for promising to govern for all Egyptians. Clinton is practicing what she preaches, extending respect to those who are at risk of extremism, no doubt in order to incite them to feel good about themselves and renounce extremist tendencies. The sad reality is that religious freedom is deteriorating in both Egypt and Lybia, and will continue to do so.
The unspoken thesis woven throughout Clinton’s whole message is that the content of Islamic belief is not the problem. For Clinton, ‘tolerance’ means respecting the beliefs of others as valid, including and especially Islam. Renouncing belief in any ultimate truth, while embracing respect for all ‘legitimate religious differences’ is to her the real solution to the problem of religious freedom, and the yardstick of valid religious belief and practice.
Clinton embodies her own recipe for coexistence. She manifests respect for Islam by not criticizing it, apparently in the hope that this will move persecuting Islamic governments towards a less ‘extreme’ — i.e. more relativistic — position like her own.
Clinton’s remedy for religious intolerance is also official US policy. The Obama administration chooses to respect, tolerate and protect Islam as an official tactic to encourage Muslims to be more tolerant and less ‘extreme’.
The risk of this strategy is that it can minimize instances of Islamic persecution and conceal its causes. This all too easily ends up becoming collusion. For example, one of the most disappointing features of Clinton’s 2012 religious freedom speech was that the US Government’s 2011 Religious Freedom Report failed to identify Egypt and Pakistan as a ‘countries of particular concern’ for religious freedom, despite all the evidence. The most plausible explanation is that the Obama Administration did not want to ‘humiliate’ their Islamist allies – inciting them to ‘anger’ and ‘despair’ – so it downplayed their prevailing patterns of religious persecution deeply rooted in Islamic dogma.
Malcolm Fraser, a former Prime Minister of Australia, is a religious universalist.
In an opinion piece about Australia’s treatment of refugees Fraser found it repugnant that some Australians fear Muslims because they believe ‘terrorism is synonymous with Islam’, a view he rejects out of hand on the basis that all religions share the same (good) values:
“I would have no problem with religion being taught in schools, as long as children were taught about all the world’s great religions and the common thread of humanity and of humane values that runs through all those religions. A wider knowledge on these matters would be a good thing.”
President Obama also looks at the world through universalist eyes. This was reflected in his 2009 Cairo speech in which he stated that Islam’s values are American values:
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Universalism comes under pressure from the cognitive dissonance caused by the fact that people of sincere faith actually promote and live out vastly diverse values, many of which certainly would not agree with Fraser’s personal conception of universal ‘human values’. One true believer divests themselves of all their possessions to devote their life to helping the poor. Another flies a plane into a skyscraper to kill thousands. Both believers are equally sincere. They differ, not in the intensity of their beliefs, but in what their beliefs consist of. It is their contrasting, not held-in-common values which cause them to act in completely opposite ways.
(The phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ was coined in 1957 by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter in When Prophecy Fails, a study of a UFO cult’s coping mechanisms when an expected apocalypse failed to eventuate.)
Managing Cognitive Dissonance: Coping Strategies
There is a cost in retaining a belief which cannot be easily reconciled with reality. The relativist and the universalist need to deploy a range of coping strategies to help them hang on to their failing world views.
One strategy is to avoid being confronted with information which could make the feelings of dissonance worse. One does not expect Malcolm Fraser spends much time browing the hadiths of Muhammad.
Another coping strategy is to demonize a bearer of bad news. Thus it can be reassuring and self-comforting for Geert Wilders to be vilified as ‘extreme right wing’. The passion of the accusation is a reflection of the depth of the anxiety standing behind it.
Another strategy is to shift blame. I have many times given addresses on the Koranic motivation for violence, after which someone in the audience has stood up and asked “What about the crusades: Christians have been violent too!” So true, but this is quite irrelevant to the challenge of understanding and engaging with Islam’s doctrines. This deflection has a purely emotional function, as it serves to reduce cognitive dissonance: by diverting attention away from stress-inducing information about Islam, it helps relieve a person of the responsibility to make a moral judgement about Islam which has challenging and perhaps frightening implications.
Sometimes blame-shifting means searching around for a surrogate cause. This was the coping mechanism played out after the Fort Hood Massacre, when Major Nidal Hasan, acting in accordance with jihad principles he had so clearly expounded in a medical seminar attacked and killed 13 fellow soldiers. After the event, President Obama pleaded with Americans not to ‘jump to conclusions’ saying, “we cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing.” Newsweek’s Evan Thomas opined ‘he’s probably just a nut case.’
Sometimes blame shifting can involve constructing elaborate alternative narratives. An example is the claim that the Palestinian conflict is the underlying cause of global jihad terrorism. Hence Malcolm Fraser’s claim that the West’s support for Israel perpetuates a breeding ground for terrorism:
“… the West’s one-sided policies relating to Israel and Palestine … is an abscess which breeds terrorists and will do so until there is a viable two-state solution.
This view can be understood as an elaborate coping mechanism for managing the cognitive dissonance caused by the problem of Islamic violence, a phenomenon which however predates the formation of the modern state of Israel by 1400 years.
Malcolm Fraser is not alone in holding this view. Indeed it comes naturally to those who must scramble for some foothold or other to compensate for the cognitive dissonance caused by their unreal world views about religious differences. President Jimmy Carter likewise contended that ‘permanent peace in the Middle East’ will not come until Israel accepts ‘its legal borders’ (Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, p.205, p.216: see Kenneth Stein’s compelling critique of Carter’s views).
The meme which attributes Islamic terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and claims that once a two-state resolution is achieved, peace will miraculously settle across the Middle East – or even, Malcolm Fraser implies, across the whole world – is given the lie by the degeneration of the so-called Arab Spring into a series of lingering bitter, bloody conflicts, none of which have anything to do with the Jews, and which are causing far more casualties than any of the wars between Israel and the Arabs.
Another example of blame shifting is Bill Clinton’s claim that Boko Haram’s murderous jihad against Nigerian Christians is due to ‘poverty’, ‘inequality’, and a vicious circle of violence: ‘it is almost impossible to cure a problem based on violence with violence.’
Another coping mechanism is to perform cognitive gymnastics which delegitimize and mask the religious identity and motivations of perpetrators of violence.
An example was the apology forced from the BBC’s Nick Robinson for observing that the Woolwich killers had shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and were of ‘Muslim appearance’, descriptors which he had heard from the police. The inner logic runs like this: ‘Religions are good, so if someone does a bad thing in the name of religion, they can’t be acting with a religious motivation.’ In practice this world-view patch-up is concealed under the guise of opposing stereotyping. Robinson’s critics, while ostensibly opposing stereotyping, were propping up a world view by suppressing public acknowledgement of dissonant evidence.
Delegitimizing people of faith is one of Malcolm Fraser’s coping mechanism. He asserted that while religions are essentially good, people who act contrary to religion’s ‘universal values’ are not genuine representatives of their faith, but ‘exploiters’ of religion who ‘should be condemned.’
“We also have to recognise that, on occasions, ideologues from every religion have exploited their faith and, in the name of their faith, have preached hatred, brutality and terrorism. Wherever they come from, such people should be condemned.”
Malcolm Fraser asserts all religions preach the same (inherently good) message, but his position is unfalsifiable, because if someone were to disagree, pointing out that some people promote religious messages which are not good, he would respond by claiming that such people are not genuine people of faith, but ‘exploiters’ and ‘ideologues’.
I am reminded of the old story about the man who believed he was dead. He visited a psychiatrist who asked him “Do dead men bleed?” “No,” the man replied. The psychiatrist then took a pin and pricked the man’s finger. He looked in horror at the blood welling out of his finger tip: “Oh no! I was wrong! Dead men do bleed!”
President Bush’s public statement after the 9/11 atrocity that “Islam is Peace” (implying that the attackers were not genuine Muslims and were not motivated by Islam) is another example.
Suppression of cognitive dissonance is not merely an individual experience. It can be an epidemic, a mass psychosis, as coping mechanisms are replicated across newspapers, board rooms, government policies, talkback radio shows, family gathering and internet forums. For example, the rising hatred being directed against Israel across Europe is a societal response to manage the cognitive dissonance — and fear — caused by the rise of supremacist Islam.
When the Obama administration banned the use of the expressions ‘jihad’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ in discussions of terrorist threats by its security officials, this was an institutional form of deligitimizing and veiling the well-attested religious motivations of terrorists. This illustrates how a cognitive coping mechanism can be played out at the highest levels of government, even through deliberate policy decisions, and filter down to change the thought patterns of society.
When newspapers and police forces repeatedly suppress Islamic motivations of crimes (see here and here) — whether in Egypt or in the West – this is a manifestation of a coping mechanism which has become a cultural trait.
Denial can be comforting. It spares one the trauma and hard work of engaging with realities which do not fit with cherished and deeply held personal beliefs, and few things are more personal than one’s beliefs about religion. But will it deliver peace and harmony?
Geert Wilders despises that tendency of western liberal thought which desperately wants to believe that all faiths are the same. For Wilders the world view and strategy held up by Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Malcolm Fraser are nothing but a deception which denies people the opportunity to call a spade a spade, to own the fact that it is Islam itself which constitutes a threat to religious freedom, and then to do something about it.
Wilders maintains that if something is wrong it should be opposed, and to tolerate the intolerable is to collaborate with it. (On the other hand, Muslim clerics maintain that because sharia is right, it should be promoted and even imposed with all the force and power one can muster.)
Do our relativist and universalist political leaders – who mirror the values of many of the secular western people they lead – have something valuable to offer? In the face of the challenge of Islam, is there a gain in maintaining that all religions, especially Islam, are good and noble, and anyone who disagrees is an extremist ideologue or a bigot?
The problem is that the relativist and universalist belief systems are not reasonable. They are not credible. Not being truth-based, and relying on prejudice, they demand intense, constant and costly management of cognitive dissonance. Truth is the first casualty of these coping strategies, which result in bad policy, and poor strategies which only serve to empower and cover for enemies of freedom and truth.
Shameful, painful examples abound. Consider Major Nidal Hassan, the jihadi-for-a-day, who continues to draw an army salary while the Pentagon persists in mis-classifying his killing spree, performed while shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar‘, as ‘workplace violence’. One consequence is that his wounded victims have not been granted benefits normally available to those injured in combat, such as Purple Heart retirement and preferential medical support.
If universalism and relativism are destined to fail us, because they cannot be made to fit reality, does this send us back to our two earlier options: the position of convinced Muslims, who maintain that Islam is pure, great and the solution to all human problems, or that of Geert Wilders and many like him, who assert that the religion of Islam is one of the great problems facing the world today?
There are alternative views we have yet to consider. Some critics of Islam allow for the possibility of a genuinely moderate Islam. This is something we shall consider in my next post on ‘Geert Wilder’s visit to Australia’.
Mark Durie is an Anglican vicar in Melbourne, Australia, author of The Third Choice, and an Associate Fellow at the Middle Eastern Forum.